The evolution of Ordnance Survey mapping

If you’re a lover of old maps, you may be aware of the changes that have taken place on Ordnance Survey maps over the years.  Changes to colour, styling, the depiction of roads and vegetation for example. As you can imagine, visitors to our Southampton head office often want to visit our Cartography teams and see the work they’re doing now – and compare this to how things used to be done.

The Cartography team put their heads together and came up with a display to show visitors the past present and future roles of cartography. One aspect of the display was produced by Cartographer Alicja Karpinska, making use of her photography and digital image manipulation skills, to complete an image showing the evolution of Ordnance Survey mapping.

Alicja chose an area in the Lake District after searching through archives to identify an area that would perfectly show the evolution of maps over 200 years. There were a variety of examples across the years in the same scale (1 inch to 1 mile which evolved into what is today the highly recognisable 1:50 000 OS Landranger Map). The extract includes a number of different physical features to illustrate the changes over the decades – with mountains, lakes, vegetation and roads depicted.

The image was created by scanning the maps and then using Photoshop to seamlessly blend the nine images into one complete image. Alicja left the original colours on the mapping extracts to illustrate the changes in mapping style.

Take a look at the image below and let us know what you think. Do you have a favourite era of mapping?

18 Responses

  1. claire winfield

    That’s lovely – I feel inspired – although sadly lacking the skills (and Photoshop) to be able to do something similar.

  2. Robin Tucker

    Fascinating, I love old maps and like to browse through them when planning cycle rides for history. 2012 is for me the clearest but I do like the 1920 version. Nice job.

  3. Steve Edge

    Excellent work! Really interesting to see how the basics of good cartography have remained much the same over the years. Those early cartographers knew their stuff. Chris’s comment (above)about hand-lettering reminded me of my time at OS (1973-76) working on negatives of the 1:50000 1st series and the delights of cutting one or two names of newish features that had been missed during the previous processes. Added a few new roads too! All cut into the negs by hand (in reverse of course!)using a variety of special tools, a jeweller’s eyeglass, a linen tester and a very steady hand. How things change!

  4. Neil McDermott

    Great image. The modern maps are a masterpiece of clarity and function but the pre-colour 19th Century maps have tobe the most beautiful.

    Can anyone tell me why depth contours are given for some bodies of freshwater but not others on modern OS maps??

    1. Gemma

      Great question Neil, these depth contours, or bathymetric contours, are seen in some of our 1:50 000 scale OS Landranger Maps. They’re actually shown for historic purposes, having been carried over from our 1 inch to 1 mile mapping. Ordnance Survey are not responsible for collecting this data and those bathymetric contours shown have come from other reliable sources, such as the military or academia, hence the selective areas that are shown.
      Thanks, Gemma

    1. Bob Corrick

      @Sue Sullivan I agree with you about the colouring, and the 1970-1990 maps have greater contrast for use out of doors and in poor visibility. @Adrian I agree that the detail has to be right. Can I have the 2012 printed on the reverse side of the paper, please?

  5. Adrian

    Using different scale and epoch OS maps most days I think the pre war 1″ series was the state of the art, surely 1970-1990 is not representative, why would a national park sheet in that era not have rights of way information the introduction of which was probably for many the biggest feature of value for most users. Somehow I miss the Italics today

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  7. I call this the ‘Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen changing rooms effect’ – everything he touched turned to purple, and the same seems to have happened to modern cartography. Kidding aside though, your latest work is definitely crisper than anything that preceded it – good job! Though I do wonder if leaving out the terrain shading of 1990’s map makes it harder to interpret terrain.

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    It’s the effect of the colours for height that brings a map to life, the old Quarter- Inch series was also very good for that,shame that the OS hasn’t carried the process on but I guess it comes down to cost.

  11. Tony Challenor

    Wonderful times spent with your products over the years. Thanks to all of you, with love from Belize.. Tony Challenor (Ex Brummie )

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